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Fertile ground for born-again Muslims

A militant Islamist ideology is feeding on the anger of young men all over the world. Some, born in free and prosperous countries, are embracing this theology and turning against their societies.

These home-grown terrorists are not born flaming with religious rage. Some are not even born Muslims. Their anger begins as unfocussed frustration, a sense that they have somehow been humiliated by 21 st Century life. Disaffection makes them susceptible to a hostile doctrine that urges followers to harm the society that has ‘humiliated’ them.

Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, has interviewed Islamic, Jewish and Christian terrorist leaders. The common link between them is an overwhelming perception of humiliation. This shame can be civilisational, or linked to cultural ideas of honour and manhood. For western converts the humiliation is likely to be personal.

US imperialism, the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, poverty, western cultural insensitivity are blamed by Islamism, but they are part of a motivational or ‘marketing’ call, not the impetus for terrorism in the west. This ‘universalist’ form of Islam stresses identification with a virtual Muslim supranational community or umma over all other ties.

As virtual connections replace traditional cultural ties, universalist Islam becomes than accessible to a new group of young Muslims who have no link to any country outside the western one they were born in, and who have had a secular upbringing with all the western life experiences – girlfriends, alcohol, freedom. These young men become, in Olivier Roy’s words, “born-again Muslims”. This uprooted form of Islam is also easily accessible to western converts.

Extremists sell their hostile ideology on its ‘authenticity’. However the Islamist internationale are a product of modernity, both in their philosophy and their methodology. Unfortunately, ‘born-again’ Muslims and western converts may not have the cultural bearings to resist radical interpretations of Islam.

Small numbers of young westerners are converting to a form of Islam that is violently hostile to their society. These converts are tactical gold to terror groups as they are virtually invisible to law enforcement.

Andrew Rowe, Jason Walters, Richard Reid, Jack Roche, David Hicks, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla, Muriel Degauque have all been convicted of, or are awaiting trial for, terrorism offences. They share substance abuse, petty crime, and/or some form of social and family dysfunction in their backgrounds. Most grew up in secular households in relative material comfort, received a proper education and have no connection to the Middle East. While there is no psychological profile for a suicide terrorist, common social dynamics could be central to radicalisation.

Group dynamics play an important role in the radicalization of individuals. The group creates a clear division between ‘us’ and ‘them’; converts are welcomed as ‘brothers’ and told that western society is to blame for their ills. This might explain why the conversion rate is so high in prison populations.

Religious language has become the idiom of protest against a secular society. Could this extreme theology become the ultimate act of youth rebellion: become a radical Islamist and wage a war of fear on the society you resent? This rebellion is talking place in religion, not in politics – at the heart of identity.

The phenomenon has a pyramid structure: the founding ideology that drives terrorist attacks sits at the base. Above this base is a mass of people who feel partially sympathetic to Islamist ideals; above them a smaller group who openly express support for bin Laden’s views; over them an even smaller group who offer concrete support or succor to terrorists; the top of the pyramid is the tiny violent tip, those who will actively become terrorists.

Part of fighting homegrown Islamic extremism means attacking the bottom levels of the pyramid as well as the top. Militant Islamist ideology has to be excised from any legitimate position within Islam, and this should be a goal shared by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Miranda Darling Tobias is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. This article is based on her paper “The Falcon and The Falconer” from Spring Policy 2006